Milos Forman’s ‘Ragtime’: An Entertaining Period Drama and a Graceful Goodbye of the Great James Cagney

In his much anticipated 1981 adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s celebrated novel ‘Ragtime,’ director Miloš Forman decided to single out one individual story in Doctorow’s whirlwind of chaotic narrative paths. He chose ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and given how composedly he managed to tell Walker’s turbulent story, he most likely made the right decision. The film is set at the beginning of the 20th century, and the action mostly takes place in New York City, Atlantic City and New Rochelle. Forman’s film, written by Michael Weller and the uncredited Bo Goldman, is a story of racial prejudice, injustice and anger, love, infidelity and humor. The main point that sets the plot in motion is the vandalizing of Coalhouse’s new car by a group of bigoted firemen, and this incident leads to a whole series of unpredictable events that are as entertaining as they are dynamic. The peculiar thing about Ragtime is its cast. The film features the final appearance of both Pat O’Brien and James Cagney, who returned to the big screen after a 20-year absence. But Ragtime also introduces a new generation of actors just entering the business. Mandy Patinkin, Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, Elizabeth McGovern, Fran Drescher… This unusual blend of seasoned quality and talented youth does the trick, as both Doctorow’s story and Forman’s film abound in characters and distinct personalities dancing around the screen. It’s also a great pleasure to see the iconic American novelist Norman Mailer in one of the smaller roles.

“Twenty years of laying off and it’s no different really,” remarked Cagney as he commented on the film. “Only this time I’m on the right side of the law.” Even though Cagney wasn’t a part of the impressive eight Oscar nominations the film received, he was in fact at the center of most of Ragtime‘s positive reviews. The great actor deserved a goodbye of this quality and Forman, delighted with him and his unbelievable instincts that practically made the director’s work redundant, allowed him to bow gracefully to the audience.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Michael Weller’s screenplay for Ragtime [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Available? Forman’s Ragtime is a completely forgotten film, it’s a crying shame how we’re treating it—the only available DVD on Amazon costs frickin’ $84.99.

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“He was an extraordinary man, James Cagney. When he decided already that, he will be in the film. And I visited him socially, and he asked me, ‘So what are you doing now?’ ‘We are preparing, we are doing screen tests.’ ‘Uh huh. I want to do a screen test.’ ‘Why?’ I said. And he said, ‘Well, I want you to know if you are comfortable with me and I want to know if I’m comfortable with you.’ Lot of sense. That makes so much sense. I must tell you like now I might be doing a movie I don’t dare to ask name actor to do a screen test. And I know because it’s just not done with stars. It has nothing to do with screen tests, really. What he said was very meaningful.” —Filmmaker’s Master Class with Miloš Forman

“When we were shooting, he was 80 years old. He couldn’t walk, he had diabetes, sciatica, he couldn’t hear, his memory was gone. The only part of Cagney which was absolutely untouched by age was his talent. It was just amazing. The moment the camera was rolling, that man was there and I was just mesmerized.” —Miloš Forman: Defender of the Artist and the Common Man

On March 30, 1986 one of Hollywood’s preeminent stars of all time and the cinema’s quintessential ‘tough guy,’ James Cagney died at his Dutchess Country farm in Stanfordville, New York, on Easter Sunday 1986, of a heart attack, he was 86 years old. Orson Welles considered Cagney to be “… maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera.” Cagney was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan at a ceremony at the White House on 26 March 1984. In 1999, the US Postal Service issued a 33 cent stamp honoring him. James Cagney: Top of the World is required viewing.

Martha Pinson is one of the unsung talents behind some of the finest and most important films of the last three and a half decades. A filmmaker herself, as script supervisor she has worked on eight projects apiece with Martin Scorsese and the late Sidney Lumet, and she has also worked with the like of Oliver Stone, Miloš Forman, Brian De Palma and Peter Yates. She started her career just as New York was attracting a bevy of great filmmakers. Paul Rowlands talk to Martha about her early filmgoing years, how she got into the film industry, the responsibilities of script supervising, and working with Scorsese, Lumet, Forman and De Palma. The following excerpt of an interview was originally published on Paul Rowlands’ Money Into Light.

What was the experience of working on Ragtime with Miloš Forman like?
By the summer of 1980, when I got the call, I had done a couple of big films in New York and I guess I was on the radar of the production team. I was a big fan of Hair (1979) and loved Doctorow’s novel ‘Ragtime’ (1975) so I was delighted to do the film. I said yes and dove in. We shot in New York in the summer and early fall, then moved to London for 10 weeks at Shepperton Studios. Ragtime was dazzling, complex, and beautiful, and I enjoyed it. Miloš and his DP, Miroslav Ondricek, were brilliant and fun, and the cast was amazing: James Cagney, Mary Steenburgen, Mandy Patinkin, Howard Rollins, Norman Mailer, Samuel L. Jackson, and more. It was a long shoot and there was a lot to keep track of and I suppose I ‘grew up’ a bit in the process, learning to shoulder more responsibility and pressure and to work far from home. It was an honor to work with Miloš Forman. One time he said to some of us crew that he liked it if his colleagues were smarter than him. We took the compliment knowing full well there was no chance—he is so smart, we were not even close. I learned a lot about elaborate, complex coverage of scenes.

Miloš Forman at the Jersey Shore location for RAGTIME in 1979 by Martha Pinson

Miloš Forman at the Jersey Shore location for RAGTIME in 1979 by Martha Pinson

I was witnessing the work of a very accomplished and passionate director. The film was also incredibly beautiful and historic. Every set, costume, and hairdo was special. John Graysmark was production designer, Patritzia von Brandenstein was art director, and Anna Hill Johnstone was costume designer—the best! I remember one day, it was so hot on our set that the candles were melting, literally bending over. Ragtime had vast and varied elements and Miloš just kept going with a great spirit. A funny thing I remember is that the crew would watch dailies with Miloš and Miroslav in a screening room after work. Sometimes a heated exchange in Czech would start between them and it sounded like there was trouble. Yipes! Those of us on the crew would sit there, not understanding a word and silently praying that whatever was wrong was not our fault. One time I heard my name in the middle of the intense exchange. Panic. When the shot ended, Miloš asked me why we had not done a certain scene along with the ones we just watched. I replied that the scene in question was a night shot, different lighting from the daylight scenes screened. Phew, that was fine. I had a wonderful time working with Miloš and he asked me to do Amadeus (1984) with him later. However, they were shooting in Prague and I was about to get married in New York. That was my priority and I didn’t want to delay things. —An interview with Martha Pinson

Miloš Forman and Scott Foundas discuss the directors celebrated career, punctuated by clips from his films.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Miloš Forman’s Ragtime. Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark & Muky © Dino De Laurentiis Company, Paramount Pictures. Miloš Forman at the Jersey Shore location for Ragtime in 1979 by Martha Pinson. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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